In The Philippines And Elsewhere, Coronavirus Is Enabling Human Rights Abuses


On 5 April, it was announced that a 63-year-old man in the Philippines had been shot dead for violating coronavirus lockdown rules by not wearing a mask. To date, the virus has infected 4,428 Filipinos and killed 247, and with numbers increasing daily, the government has announced strict measures to enforce social distancing and stem transmission. On 23 March, the senate declared a State of Emergency for a minimum of three months, granting President Duterte additional powers to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The incident followed a remark by Duterte that he would “bury” anyone causing trouble, and had given police and military shoot-to-kill orders. In the period since, it is believed that over 17,000 have been arrested for coronavirus-related offences, and alarmingly, there have been reports of detainees kept in dog cages in the sun as punishment. 

Given Duterte’s track record of state-sanctioned human rights abuse and violence towards citizens, there is widespread concern that the coronavirus pandemic is being used as a justification for increased brutality, and to bolster his authority. Butch Olano from Amnesty International condemned Duterte’s statement as “deeply alarming” and said that “this is an unprecedented health crisis, but President Duterte is focusing on attacking freedoms of speech and assembly.” Similarly, Human Rights Watch noted that “authorities think these regulations are more about showing their power and authority than saving lives.” Amnesty has also voiced concern that due to the elevated risk of infection in detention centers, “using prison sentences to enforce quarantine restrictions in the name of safeguarding public health is counterproductive and disproportionate.” 

Since coming to power in 2016, President Duterte’s administration has been characterized by violence, censorship and a lack of political accountability. An advocate of reviving the death penalty, Duterte has been the focus of intense international criticism over his “War on Drugs”: so far, an estimated 12,000 civilians have died at the hands of the government, of which a significant proportion were reportedly extrajudicial killings carried out by ‘death squads.’ In 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into whether Duterte had committed crimes against humanity during the course of his drugs crackdown. Duterte responded by withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC altogether. His administration has also seen a clamp-down on both journalists and political opponents who are critical of his policies. Duterte has repeatedly ordered the arrest of Maria Ressa, a prominent Filipino journalist who continually documented police brutality. Senator Leila De Lima, one of the staunchest critics of the government’s “War on Drugs”, has been detained at the headquarters of the Philippine National Police since her arrest in 2017 on politically motivated charges. In recent elections, Duterte has strengthened his grip on government, placing his allies in the Senate to remove checks on his administration. Moreover, Duterte has a precedent of clinging on to emergency powers far longer than necessary. In 2017, he declared a state of martial law after a skirmish between ISIL and Filipino troops, and renewed the declaration through to December 2019, long after the fighting had ended. Duterte’s history of governance paints a worrying picture in the current situation, and in the few weeks since a state of emergency was declared, the government has already abused the extra powers bestowed upon it. 

Duterte is not the only national leader to use the pandemic to increase their powers, and Filipinos are not the only citizens at risk of human rights abuses during the pandemic. Discussing Africa, the watchdog Freedom House has expressed fears that some measures being used to tackle the pandemic could have lasting “harmful effects and can be extended and re-purposed after a crisis has passed.” In Malawi, President Mutharika, whose term ends in July, has declared a state of national disaster. Human rights agencies are concerned that he will use the coronavirus crisis to extend his rule. Moreover, as in the Philippines, fanatic enforcement of new regulations is costing lives and violating rights. Kenya has reported four deaths at the hands of police so far, including the shooting of a 13-year-old boy and a motorbike taxi rider who succumbed to injuries after being beaten. South African police have killed at least eight citizens since their lockdown was introduced. In Uganda, police raided a shelter for homeless LGBT youth and arrested 23 for disobeying lockdown laws by staying in the shelter. 

Across the world, governments are sanctioning violent and heavy-handed responses to the coronavirus outbreak, and politically unstable regimes are capitalizing upon the crises to tighten their grip on power. If these powers and measures are not checked, the end of the pandemic could see a new era of oppression in many countries.